Almost 44 years after the Israeli military carried out Operation Thunderbolt in Entebbe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met this week with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, in this Ugandan city. Netanyahu and Burhan’s meeting captured much global attention because the two “agreed to start cooperation leading to normalization of the relationship between the two countries.” Despite Sudan hosting the Arab League summit that produced the “Three No’s” (no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel, and no negotiations with Israel), and being bombed by Israel in 2009 and 2012, Khartoum may now become the third Arab capital to officially recognize the Jewish State.
For analysts who have observed Israel’s forays into Africa, and specifically the state of Israeli-Sudanese relations, the Netanyahu-Burhan meeting in central Uganda was not too surprising. In fact, even prior to former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s ouster last year there was diplomatic outreach between Tel Aviv and Khartoum that raised the specter of bilateral relations normalizing. Four years ago, Sudan’s former Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandoor stated that a normalization of Khartoum’s relations with Israel could occur if Washington would lift sanctions on Sudan. Notably, when making that statement, Ghandoor referred to the country as “Israel”, not the “Zionist entity” which was the Sudanese government’s practice up until that point.
Netanyahu’s government saw changes in Sudan’s foreign policy as positive and tried to convince Washington to see Khartoum in a new way. The Israelis had sought to urge the Trump administration to lift sanctions on Sudan mainly due to the fact that in early 2016, Khartoum severed relations with Iran and placed Sudan more firmly in the Saudi/United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led camp of Sunni Arab states that has significantly warmed up to Israel in recent years.
To be sure, relations between the U.S. and Sudan have witnessed marked improvements in recent years. The Trump administration has lifted some sanctions on Sudan, as did the Obama administration too in early 2017. Late last year the U.S. and Sudan exchanged ambassadors for the first time in 23 years. Yet problematic for Khartoum is Sudan’s continued placement on the State Department’s list of so-called State Sponsors of Terrorism. Additionally, Sudan being on Trump’s “travel ban” further underscores the extent to which problems persist in Washington-Khartoum relations.
Until, or unless, Khartoum is removed from this State Sponsors of Terrorism list, Sudan will continue to suffer the consequences which entail restrictions on aid and military sales. At this juncture, following decades of authoritarian rule under Bashir and a moribund economy that fueled widespread rejection of his regime’s legitimacy in 2018/2019, Sudan is looking for a fully normalized relationship with Washington. The sanctions still in place to punish the government in Khartoum for past atrocities in Darfur and the terrorism sponsor designation are two major hurdles to this new chapter of American-Sudanese relations that Sudan and Israel’s leaders desire.
The timing of this meeting needs to be understood within the context of Trump and his son-in-law’s so-called “Deal of the Century” being unveiled last month at the White House. From the Palestinian perspective, Burhan’s engagement with Netanyahu in Uganda provides Israel with only further incentive to move ahead with its colonization of Palestinian land. Although no Arab state has officially endorsed Trump’s proposal, the UAE said it was a solid starting point, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not outright condemn it right after the Trump/Netanyahu ceremony. Whereas for decades the Arab states collectively pressured Israel into giving up land which it illegally annexed in exchange for Israel’s diplomatic integration into the greater Middle East, a growing number of Arab states are becoming much less firm in their stance that normalization of relations with Israel can only occur if/when a sovereign and independent Palestinian state is established along the 1967 borders. Evidently, Sudan is one of those Arab states which sees its own national interests, necessities, and priorities as giving it reason to embrace Israel regardless of the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
While the expected benefits for Khartoum of normalized Israeli-Sudanese relations seem clear, what risks is Sudan accepting in this process? As one Arab News article explained, the Muslim Brotherhood, which lost influence in Sudan as a result of Bashir’s fall, is keen to “attack” the leadership in Khartoum vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause. Yet beyond the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the region, there are other actors — both on the Sudanese street and in other Arab/Muslim-majority countries — who would oppose Sudan opening up official relations with Israel and this factor brings us to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states that deal with Israel.
With Sudan coming more and more under Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s geopolitical influence, there is likely much curiosity in these two capitals about how the Arab region will react to the Burhan-Netanyahu meeting and expected normalization of bilateral relations. Although no GCC states have official relations with Israel — despite tacit partnerships between most members of the Council (with the notable exceptions of Kuwait and arguably Qatar too) — there is perhaps good reason to conclude that some in the GCC would like to explore this avenue given perceptions about how normalized relations with Tel Aviv could benefit Arab Gulf states.
For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Emirates, Israel represents a permanent reality in the Middle East, and the Jewish State is increasingly seen as a valuable partner in the quest to counter the expansion of Iranian influence while pushing back against Turkey’s alleged “neo-Ottoman” agenda in the Arab world from Syria to Libya and Qatar to Iraq.
Yet even if these Arab Gulf countries are not democracies, public opinion (both domestically and regionally) do matter and perceptions of these governments’ interactions with Israel can fuel anger not only among Palestinians, but also among Arabs/Muslims worldwide. Ultimately, Sudan pursuing an open and official relationship with Israel can be understood as a trial balloon for those in the GCC that are proving to be increasingly influential vis-à-vis post-Bashir Sudan. What remains to be seen are the prices that Sudan pays for its embrace of Israel at a time in which Trump’s “peace plan” is fueling rage in the region.